Precious Cargo

All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design.
This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.

Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote

Red Flag

"Why on earth did you offer her a ride?"

It was the one question that Mike was hoping Jaclyn wouldn't ask, the one part of the whole story about his ordeal in Utah that he had been hoping she wouldn't focus on.

He had related to her briefly how he had come to be carrying Natalie Shapir, a.k.a. Jessica, in his Jeep through Utah by way of an introduction to the story of how his parents had come to his rescue at the county jail in the town of Hurricane. He had described in detail the information related to him by his father about Natalie and the IPF. He briefly described what had been at risk that night for him, what likely would have happened to him had his father not intervened, and related a bit of information about his folks trip home that his mother had passed on to him. All this as background to the song he was writing.

She had listened quietly throughout, nodding now and then as her smile disappeared, to be replaced at various points in the story by expressions of displeasure, shock, revulsion, and relief.

And now Mike felt like he was pinned down by her single question. Her gaze was calm, but somehow she looked distant. He quickly decided that the truth was, as usual, the only way to deal with the situation.

Her appearance unnerved him a bit. Her eyes held his, unblinking.

"She was an attractive young ferret all alone in a strange town," he started with, and almost instantly regretted the choice of words as her expression changed yet again. He hurriedly attempted to explain. "She was alone, Jazz, in a small town. She asked for help. She wanted to go home to her family. I was going her way."

Her expression became neutral as she considered this. Then - "Would you have picked her up if she were a male?"

Mike considered the question but a moment. "Sure."

Jaclyn did not respond. Her body language told Mike her defenses were up, she sat forward on the sofa with her arms folded across her chest, her gaze steady upon him. The tip of her tail twitched occasionally.

"You know what?" she asked suddenly as she began to rise up, "This is none of my business."

Mike quickly stood up as she picked up her purse. He felt guilty without knowing why. "Jazz?" He moved to step between the lynx and the door she was even now moving towards. She did not respond.

She was moving quickly, her head down. "Jazz!" Mike gently took her upper arm in a paw to stop her, or at least slow her down.

Her hazel eyes met his as she stopped and turned to face him. They were glassy, as if she were about to cry, but they were also ablaze with some other emotion. She was really upset about something, and he was struggling to figure out what.

"Jazz, what's wrong? Are you angry? What did I do?"

He felt her trembling slightly under his paw. He assumed it was from anger. Therefor he was doubly confused when she reached out with a paw of her own to touch the side of his muzzle, ever so gently and ever so briefly before she growled low in her throat and turned away from him, pulling away from his grasp.

"I'll see you at church tomorrow morning," he heard her say quietly as she opened his door. "Don't be late."

She was across his porch in a flash. Mike was at a loss as to what to do. Should he chase after her to find out what was wrong? He watched his boss walk quickly down the steps and towards the street. As Jaclyn approached the sidewalk he heard his telephone begin to ring, forcing his decision.


Joe trod through the dirt as he swung shut the gate across the national forest access road at the mouth of Slick Rock Canyon. This access was the most direct route over Avenal Ridge into Icehouse Canyon, and thence up towards Mount Stockton. His truck's diesel engine idled noisily nearby. He was far enough off the freeway at this gate that he couldn't hear the traffic above the noise of his own engine.

A hot, dry wind blew out of the northeast. The sun had been down for at least an hour and a half now, yet the temperature was still well in excess of eighty degrees. The humidity was low, probably less than ten percent. The persistent wind whistled through the sagebrush around him, and whined softly around the antennas on Joe's truck, an occasional bit of dust flying through the air on a gust.

Joe held his GSM phone to his ear, patiently waiting for his son to answer. Two rings... three rings... four rings... Joe had already begun to pull the phone away from the side of his head when he heard his eldest son's voice. "Hello?"

"Hey Mike, it's dad."

"Hey dad."

"I'm not going to make it over there tonight, son. I got called out just now." As Joe was speaking he latched the padlock on the gate with his free paw.

Mike did not immediately respond. As Joe walked back towards his truck he waited for Mike to say something. He could hear his son's even breathing in his pawset. Mike sounded slightly out of breath. As Joe reached for his door he paused and said "Mike? You hear me?"

"Yeah dad." A pause. "Sorry, Jaclyn just left."

Mike sounded distracted. "Everything OK, son?"

Joe heard a sigh in his pawset. "I don't know. I was telling her about what happened to me in Utah, and she got upset and left."

"She was angry?"



Another sigh. "I think 'cause Jessica... I mean 'cause Natalie was a girl."

Joe couldn't help but grin slightly. He had figured there was a lot of tension between Mike and his boss, and he was pretty sure he knew what caused it. He climbed into the cab of his truck and shut the door. "Son? Exactly what did you tell her?"

Mike drew a long breath. "I told her all about what happened in Utah, about how you and mom and Debbie came to get me, about the IPF and what they do to furs, and about what you told us about Natalie. I told her..."



Joe's grin was wide enough that his fangs showed slightly. "Son, exactly what did you say about Natalie?"



Mike scratched his ear in thought. "I told Jazz what Natalie told me, that she was by herself on the road, hitching home to California to see her family."

Joe shook his head slightly. Youth could be so blind about some things! "Mike, did you tell her what Natalie looked like?"

"... I said she was pretty..."



"You told Jaclyn that you picked up a female hitch-hiker in Arizona because she was pretty?"

There was a few seconds of silence from Joe's pawset, then "... uuhhh, yeah. I guess I did."

"Son, do you think maybe you might have softened up the delivery of that bit of information?" Joe reached for the gear selector and selected low before releasing the air brakes. "Or perhaps avoided it altogether?"

Another long pause. "She's angry with me because Natalie was pretty?"

"Mike, she's angry with you because you had another female in your car. Think about this, son..."

Things clicked in Mike's head. He was suddenly struck by two simultaneous emotions with the knowledge that Jaclyn had feelings for him other than those based upon their business relationship and common faith. "Oh shit!"

"You're not kidding, oh shit."

"Sorry dad."

Joe laughed briefly. "No problem here, Mike. But I think you might want to consider another conversation with Jaclyn at your earliest convenience. Clear the air, you know?"

Mike sounded relieved in Joe's ear. "Yeah." A pause. "Thanks dad." Another pause, a bit longer than the first. "You say you're not going to make it tonight?"

"Yeah," now it was Joe's turn to sigh. "I got called out. I may be out quite late, so I'd better cancel altogether."

"That's OK. You be careful, OK?"

"I will, son."

"Does mom know?"

"She'll be my next call."

"Alright dad. Some other time, then."

"Right Mike. Catch you later."

"Bye dad."

Joe looked at Mojave on the seat next to him as he folded up his GSM phone, placing it on the console between them before releasing the air brakes. Her dark eyes stared back at him.

"Here we go, kid." He scratched her behind the ears briefly as the truck lurched forward on the uneven dirt road, then turned his full attention to the trail ahead.


The two foxes and the mink were standing in the foyer of Raphael's. A valet was in the process of bringing Gina's car around.

"It's been a pleasure meeting you, Annie," Gina said emphatically.

Annie turned to face the mink with a smile on her muzzle. "Thank you, Gina. We had a wonderful time, and I think I'm as excited about Debbie's future as she is."

Debbie smiled at them both.

"Wonderful!" Gina replied smoothly. "I think your daughter has a marvelous career in front of her. Together we can ensure that she goes as far as she can while meeting our mutual educational objectives."

Annie grinned. "I like the way you think, Gina."

Gina winked at the red fox. "Wait until you get to know me."

A valet approached Annie. "Your ticket, ma'am?"

Annie rummaged in her purse briefly and produced the ticket for the bobcat.

"Thank you." He glanced at the ticket. "Oh yes, the STS. Right away, ma'am." He trotted off towards the valet lot.

Annie turned again to Gina, her paw extended. "Thank you for a wonderful evening."

"Yes," chimed in Debbie. "We had a marvelous time."

The mink took the fox's outstretched paw in her own. As at the beginning of the evening a little electric charge jolted the mink as their paws touched. Gina shook the fox's paw warmly.

"My pleasure." She let her paw drop.

Debbie stepped forward, her arms outstretched. "Thank you so much, Gina." The mink and the younger fox embraced. "I can't tell you what this means to me," Debbie said quietly into Gina's ear.

The two parted as a car rumbled up behind them. Turning, the two foxes had a look at Gina's ride. Not ten feet away from them was a brand new Cadillac Sixteen. A little over eighteen feet long, this glossy black production touring sedan had a 13.6 liter, 1000 horsepower V16 engine on a 140 inch wheelbase, rear wheel drive chassis, resting on 24 inch wheels. The ash colored interior was opulently appointed with silk carpeting, Tuscany leather, and burnished oak appliques throughout. Even at idle the motor sounded "healthy".

Annie was momentarily enchanted. She glanced at Gina, suddenly slightly short of breath. "This is yours?" she asked as she turned her attention back to the sedan before them.

Gina nodded, smiling. At that moment they heard a wireless phone begin to ring.

Each female reached into her purse. Annie came up with her GSM phone, opened it, and held it to her ear. "Hello?"

The signal was noisy. She thought she recognized Joe's voice, but she was only catching random words and syllables.

"Joe? Is that you?" Suddenly Annie became unaware of her surroundings.

"Hi sweet... almost up on... to Icehouse... fire."

Annie was suddenly concerned, without knowing why. "Joe, I can hardly hear you, you’re breaking up. Where are you?"

"... Slick... direct... a brush fire on... "

Annie spoke loudly into her phone. "Joe, I can't make out what you’re saying. Call me back, honey."

The circuit went dead. Annie slowly folded her phone, holding it in her paw. She looked up vacantly to Gina. Something in her gut told Annie that Joe was in danger.

"That was Joe."

Gina couldn't help but notice the sudden look of concern on the fox's face. "Is everything all right?"

Annie looked quickly at Debbie. Her Cadillac STS rolled up as the two foxes exchanged glances. Annie motioned to her daughter as she turned to face the mink again. As the valet climbed out of the driver's side Debbie opened the passenger door of the STS and sat down, leaving the door open.

"I'm sure he's fine. He's just somewhere with weak network coverage." Annie paused. "I think he's been called out."

"To work?"

Annie's blue eyes met the mink's green eyes. "Who knows? He could be going anywhere..."

Gina smiled. "If you and Debbie need some company, don't hesitate to call."

Impulsively Annie stepped forward and hugged the mink. Momentarily startled, Gina returned the hug as graciously as she could, having been caught off guard.

"Thank you, Gina." Annie paused momentarily as if unsure what to do next. Then she suddenly turned and began walking around the back of her own car. Looking back to the mink one last time as she approached the driver's door of the STS she said "I'll call you when I can."

Gina waved a paw briefly. "That will be fine, Annie. Be careful."

"Good night, Gina." Two doors of the STS slammed shut, and it accelerated rapidly from the valet lane out of the parking lot.


Joe had been driving carefully up the darkened trail out of Slick Rock Canyon, seeking the elevation that would hopefully give him better signal coverage on his GSM phone. He was slowly approaching the crest of Avenal Ridge.

As he rolled into the wide flat spot on the ridgeline where the road crested and then began to drop into Icehouse Canyon Joe glanced at the display of his GSM phone. It indicated full strength. As he coasted to a stop he picked up his phone and pressed the speed-dial number for Annie's phone. He waited for almost a full minute as the network processed his request, then growled quietly to himself as the connection was dropped without ever ringing her phone.

He turned to Mojave with a rueful grin. "Time for Plan B," he said as their truck began to roll forward.

Joe turned a knob on the low band radio beneath the dash of his truck. Finding the channel he wanted, he picked up the microphone and identified himself with the proper call. Upon releasing the push to talk switch on the microphone he heard system telemetry indicating clean access. He pressed a few keys on his microphone's touch tone pad, commanding a remote system telephone interface. Upon pressing the last button he heard a mechanical voice say "autopatch dialing", followed a few seconds later by the sound of a ringing telephone.

As Annie guided her STS southeast towards their home, her GSM phone rang once again. Without taking her eyes from the road she reached into her purse and found her phone. Bringing it towards her right ear, she flipped it open single-pawed and pressed the accept button with her thumb.

Annie's voice came from the radio speaker under Joe's dash. "Hello?"

Joe keyed his microphone. "Annie, it's Joe. I'm on the company radio-telephone intertie. Can you hear me OK?"

"I hear you quite well, Joe. Where are you?"

Joe turned the wheel of his truck quickly before replying. He was descending slowly into Icehouse Canyon on a narrow, steep dirt road full of switchbacks and blind corners. Leaving the latest switchback, he picked up the microphone again.

"In the Santa Anas, Annie. I've been called out, and probably won't be home until quite late tonight."

"Oh, Joe," Annie sighed in mild disappointment. "I'm sorry. Be careful, honey."

Joe braked his truck to a stop on the dark trail. "I will, Angel. Listen, I've got Mojave with me, so don't be alarmed when you don't see her at home, OK?"

Annie was confused. "Why did you take the kali on a callout with you?"

"I didn't," Joe explained. "I was on my way over to Mike's with her when I got the call."

Annie knew that Joe would have brought their pooch home before heading out on SCWD business. Most of the time their callouts weren't so important that they wouldn't allow him the few minutes it would have taken to do that. Mindful of the fact that their conversation was via an open radio channel Annie considered her next question carefully before asking it. "Joe, is this call for the sub-contractor?"

Joe momentarily marveled at Annie's perception and candor. "Yes," he answered simply.

In the STS Debbie looked carefully at her mom. Her mom's question about the "sub-contractor" had captured her attention. She gazed steadily at her mom as Annie's expression turned from mild disappointment to concern. Debbie thought she knew what was troubling her mother.

"So you have no idea when you'll be home," Annie said. It was not a question.

"No," Joe replied. "I'm sorry, Angel." Joe paused, and then added "I'll call you when I can."

Annie sighed quietly into her phone, the sound dutifully relayed through the GSM network to the public wireline network , thence to the radio site Joe was communicating through, from which it was routed to the speaker under Joe's dash. A message was in that sigh, and Joe winced slightly as her voice followed. "Be very careful, Joe."

"I will, honey. Don't wait up."

To Hell with the open radio channel, Annie thought. "I love you, Joe."

Joe grinned in the cab of his truck, his tail thumped the seat frame once or twice. His fox knew that their conversation was in the clear and easily monitored by anyone, and it didn't bother her at all to express her love for him before that unseen audience. Two can play that game. "I love you too, Angel. Sleep well, my love."

Telemetry sounded in Joe's speaker, followed by the mechanical voice. "Call complete at twenty one oh six."

In the STS Annie carefully folded her GSM phone and placed it in her purse. Without turning to look at her daughter she said, "Your father won't be home tonight. He's in the mountains on a callout."

Debbie reached for and took her mom's free paw in her own. Annie's other paw turned the wheel slightly, maneuvering the STS over the canyon highway they were heading down on their way home.

"Are you OK mom?"

Annie sighed. "Yes, sweetie. Just disappointed. I wanted to tell him all about Gina and the project. Now it'll have to wait." She glanced at her daughter out of the corner of her eye. "Dad has Mojave with him. They were going over to Mike's when he got the call."

Debbie considered this momentarily. It meshed with the "sub-contractor" comment. "He's been called by the IPF, hasn't he?" she asked quietly.

The gentle rumble of the STS' engine almost masked her mother's whispered reply.



At about quarter to ten that evening an AC300AT rolled up to a locked gate about half a mile below the summit of Mount Stockton. At this location Icehouse Canyon narrowed to the point where only smaller vehicles and ATCs could pass safely, something as large and heavy as a 300 series truck would be ill advised to continue beyond the gate.

The fire was clearly visible on the western slopes of the summit above. It had spread and consumed several hundred acres in the last hour, driven by the strong northeast winds, and the front was already moving down the slopes of Mount Stockton along Greenlee Ridge to the southwest. The Icehouse Canyon road approached Mount Stockton from the north. Unless the wind turned more than one hundred and twenty degrees to come from the south, the Icehouse Canyon road would be safe from the fire. Conditions dictated that the wind would continue to blow out of the northeast.

The driver spent a couple minutes backing and cutting, turning the truck around on the trail just below the gate. Succeeding after seven cuts, he finally backed into a small clearing beside the trail about a hundred feet below the gate. The engine shut down and air brakes set.

After a few seconds the driver's door opened, and a large coyote with a dark muzzle jumped quietly to the dirt, followed by a dark kali of some sort. As though trained to do so, they both stood silently for almost a full minute, slowly scanning their surroundings as they sniffed the air cautiously. Then the coyote brought his right paw up to pat something on his rib cage once, just below his left armpit. As he lowered the paw he motioned silently to the kali, and the two turned towards the gate and began hiking the last half mile up towards the summit.


The Bell UH-1 had first seen duty in Viet Nam in the seventies. It had survived multiple crews and tours there, and then served in the Army for several more years as a trainer before the Orange County Fire Authority acquired it in the mid nineties. It was the eldest of three UH-1s the Authority owned, and was the only one available at this particular moment. One of her sister ships was down for an annual inspection, the other was on a mutual aid fire response in the northern part of the state.

Two well-trained furs were on board the Huey as it flew above Anaheim Hills towards the fire ahead. The pilot was a native of the area, born and raised in Corona in the Inland Empire. At twenty six the mountain lion was relatively young to be an aircraft commander, but his tour with the Army had contributed considerably to the three thousand hours of flight time he already had in his logbooks.

His copilot and observer was an old fur of thirty three by comparison. While not possessing as many hours as the mountain lion, virtually all of the setter's twelve hundred hours of flight time had been with the Authority flying various aircraft and helicopters. The setter had lived most of his life in Orange County and, as an avid outdoorsfur, had hiked virtually all the canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Between the two of them they knew the conditions and the terrain like the backs of their own paws. The night sky above Anaheim Hills was rough, owing to the winds blowing. The crew would need to have all the resources they possessed at their disposal to conduct a safe surveillance and suppression flight.

The Governor's Office of Emergency Services had notified the California Department of Forestry and the Cleveland National Forest of the fire on Mount Stockton. CDF had placed a mutual aid call with Orange County Fire Authority and Riverside County Fire. OCFA had been the first to respond, during Red Flag conditions they made a habit of keeping a water dropping helicopter on hot standby. The lion and the setter had been airborne within eight minutes of getting the call.

Red Flag is a term widely used by firefighting agencies across the southwest. It describes conditions in which the danger of wildland fire is extreme. These conditions include fuel moisture content, air temperature, humidity, and wind direction and speed. These conditions were currently combined in the classic Santa Ana Wind condition.

The fuel, the sagebrush and stunted pines and oaks of the low mountains, was tinder dry. It was seventy eight degrees at their altitude of three thousand feet at 2145 hours, the humidity was quite low at only 8 percent. The winds gusting across the summit of Mount Stockton were unknown to the crew, but Corona airport, a few miles to the north, was reporting sustained wind speeds of thirty knots with gusts to fifty. The National Weather Service had issued a Red Flag warning that morning, and the OCFA helicopter crews had immediately gone on hot standby.

As they approached the three thousand foot summit of Mount Stockton the lion and the setter consulted briefly about their approach on the intercom. They both wore headsets with boom mics.

"I'm going to orbit high in right turns to the east. We'll approach from the northwest and swing around, trying to avoid the smoke. Got your telemetry set up?"

The setter nodded. A video camera was slaved to their gyro-stabilized Night Sun spotlight. Whatever they pointed the spotlight at, video of what they saw would be downlinked via broadband digital radio to the OCFA headquarters at the County Emergency Operations Center. "All set," the setter replied.

The lion pulled the helicopter up to thirty three hundred feet as they rolled into their right hand orbit above the summit. The setter flicked two toggles and the Night Sun blazed to life. Manipulating a small joystick in his paws, the setter brought the island of brilliance around to the summit itself.

"Holy Jesus", the two pilots exclaimed together.


The coyote held a paw down and back for the kali at his side. The fire raged in the wind off to their right, several hundred yards across a small draw, but that wasn't what the coyote was staring at. Ahead and slightly to his left a large piece of metal jutted into the sky, the orange-red of the flames flickering in reflection. As the coyote and the kali watched a noise caused their ears to pivot a bit. From above, behind, and to their left they heard an approaching helicopter.

Huey, Joe thought to himself. Fire Authority.

They crouched motionless in the brush about a hundred feet away from the metal. As the helicopter flew almost directly overhead a spotlight suddenly illuminated the area just northeast of the summit. The beam swung around and illuminated the large metal structure, which suddenly revealed itself to be the damaged tail surfaces of an airplane. The part that had been visible in the dark was the rudder.

The spotlight beam swung about the area slowly, and then suddenly ceased movement and illuminated a radio tower on the communications complex that occupied the northeast edge of the summit . In the light Joe could see that the top portion of the southernmost of the four towers there was missing, it had been ripped away somehow. Bent pieces of metal structure lay in the dirt west of the section of tower that remained standing, along with a trail of debris leading in an arc across the ground towards the rudder.

An aircraft hit the tower, Joe thought. Mojave whined quietly next to him, looking at what wreckage of the aircraft was visible. He placed a paw on her shoulders to quiet her. She glanced at him briefly and then returned her gaze to the wreckage. Joe listened intently and stared carefully for long minutes, but could neither hear nor see anything amiss. He looked at the kali briefly. She was staring at something. What?


"Can you make out the aircraft type?" the lion asked his setter observer. It was obvious to them that the fire had been started by an airplane crash. Whatever type it was had apparently hit the radio tower a couple hundred yards east of the main wreckage site.

The Night Sun beam swung away from the tail assembly to what was left of the cabin. The setter moved the beam in short sweeps back and forth across the main wreckage site. After a few moments he said "Cabin class twin, like a Cessna Conquest or a Piper Cheyenne, that size."

"Any identification?"

"Hell, I can't tell for sure what it is, let alone who it belongs to!"

The lion grimaced. "Let's move to the south and see if we can learn any more." The Huey responded to his control inputs and moved unsteadily in a wide circle east of the tower complex and around to the south, towards the southern flank of the summit. The lion reduced altitude to avoid most of the smoke, but didn't get too low. The air was rough in the wind, and he knew that there would be bad downdrafts to the west of the summit. He had no intention of going anywhere near those west-facing slopes.

The setter began his slow sweep of the crash scene with the Night Sun again.


"What the Hell was that?" the lion asked.

The setter shrugged in preparation of saying "Who knows?", but never got the question past his lips.

Ping! Ping! And then suddenly the window in the door next to the setter shattered, the plexiglas flying into the helicopter, shards imbedding themselves in both furs. The setter yelped in pain as something else burned deep in his chest.

"I'm hit!" he screamed as he slumped in his seat.

"What?" the lion yelled above the sudden roar of the wind and blades overhead.

"Ground fire! I took a bullet! Get us out of here!"

The lion glanced quickly at his observer, just long enough to see an ugly red stain growing quickly on the front of his flight suit. Raw instinct from his service days took possession of the lion's actions, he dove the Huey for the cover of terrain as he turned west towards their base in Orange County. He knew where the hospitals with helipads were near there, and his only thought was to get his observer to one as fast as possible.

As the helicopter sped down and to the west the lion suddenly remembered, too late, the wind at their backs. The Huey yawed and bucked as it crossed the summit into the head of Icehouse Canyon, straight into the teeth of a deadly downdraft caused by the wind blowing off the summit into the canyon from the east. The lion realized his error and yanked up on the cyclic for all he was worth, but it was too late. The Huey was driven down into the canyon wall by the wind. It exploded in a fireball on impact, the flaming wreckage fluttering and falling to the dusty bottom of the canyon below.


Joe had seen the muzzle flashes of a single unseen weapon off to his right. He had seen the Huey suddenly dive for cover and head west, only to explode below him in the canyon.

Murderous rage boiled up within the coyote. The fur on his shoulders stood up, his eyes drained of color as his fangs bared in a guttural snarl. The Berretta 92SBE suddenly appeared in his right paw. Some bastard was going to pay for the loss of that aircrew, and they were going to pay now. He motioned to the kali to stay put as he crept forward into the brush.

To Chapter Thirty Three: Trial By Fire.

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him in the canyon.

Murderous rage boiled up within the coyote. The fur on his shoulders stood up, his eyes drained of color as his fangs bared in a guttural snarl. The Berretta 92SBE suddenly appeared in his right paw. Some bastard was going to pay for the loss of that aircrew, and they were going to pay now. He motioned to the kali to stay put as he crept forward into the brush.

To Chapter Thirty Three: Trial By Fire.

Back to Stories Page

Back to Main Page